40 Years in Beer, Part Seventeen: Uncle V’s beery introduction to Bohemia (June 1989)

The wares at a Prague grocery, 1989.


West Berlin, 1989.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Sixteen: In 1988, I had a slightly better year than Michael Dukakis.

In May 1989 I gave notice at UMI-Data Courier, or whatever it was being called at that point, and packed my bags for Euro Journey III.

Incidentally, at present the Super Bowl still maintains a comfortable two touchdown margin against me, LVII to XLII.

It would be the beeriest trip to date, and more importantly, the last to be calibrated on Warsaw Pact time, hence my arrival in West Berlin with a stated intention of remaining in Europe for at least seven months, beginning with an extended stay behind the Iron Curtain.

In 2023 Berlin is the dynamic capital of unified Germany, but in 1989 there were two Germanys and two Berlins, and they led decidedly separate lives. Bonn, a small city in the Rhineland, was the capital of the Federal Republic, known to us as West Germany. West Berlin as an entity was entirely surrounded by the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or communist East Germany, of which East Berlin was the capital.

Strictly speaking, Berlin in 1989 was still divided into zones of occupation as administered by the triumphant Allies after World War II, which ended 44 years prior to my arrival. Berlin’s western districts included American, British and French zones, and officials from the three countries still met at regular intervals to discuss their theoretical stewardship of the city, which in practice had long since been ceded to local authorities.

An empty seat was maintained for the Soviet emissary, who had ceased attending some years before. The two Berlins were prioritized as ideological showplaces by their respective overlords, with East Berlin enjoying perhaps the highest standard of living in the entire Soviet zone, which began at the walled-off Brandenburg Gate at Unter den Linden and extended eastward all the way to Vladivostok.

The Berlin Wall was the line of demarcation between the Allied zones and the sovereign territory of the GDR. It boasted colorful graffiti on one side and gray emplacements equipped with searchlights and machine guns on the other. During David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” period during the 1970s, he could see the Wall just across the street from Hansa Studio, where the album “Heroes” was recorded. The title song came to mind often that summer.

In short, Berlin in 1989 was as yet peak Cold War, although those first few days in May were only a teaser for me. A lengthier return was planned for August, when I’d arranged a month-long “working” stay in East Berlin. My experiences toiling for the greater good of Herr Erich Honecker and his flunkies will be reprised in a future episode.

Quite early in the morning of June 2, 1989, I tiptoed out of my West Berlin hostel dorm and took to the street, where I caught the day’s inaugural bus into the center of the city. From Zoo Station (later immortalized by U2 on “Achtung Baby”), a suburban rail (S-Bahn) train rumbled a few stops east, then passed above the militarized Wall and pulled into the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin.

Clambering off the train, I found myself standing on a sealed platform. It was possible to transfer to other commuter trains and subways headed to destinations in West Berlin, but not to simply walk out onto the street. For this I needed to pass through passport control and a customs check. Such was the bizarre transport arrangement reflecting the city’s division.

I had a time-sensitive transit visa for East Germany, allowing me to pass through the country without stopping overnight. My ultimate destination was Prague, in the nation then known as Czechoslovakia, a four-hour trip from East Berlin.

The procedure for examining my passport and visa was far more bureaucratic shuffling than tense spy flick, with a palpable sense of ennui pervading the hall. The train for Prague debarked from a different station, requiring an “Ossie” S-Bahn connection, so there wasn’t time to explore in depth.

Still, I exited briefly for a look outside, and the effect was suitably visceral. The epicenter of East Berlin, while comparable to downtown Budapest or Moscow, possessed a capitalist counter-example within spitting distance, and the juxtaposition was eerie.

The street was quiet and its traffic light for a major thoroughfare, with the undersized Trabant and Wartburg automobiles strictly throwback. Color schemes were gray and brown. Given smudgy clouds and the chill of an early summer day, prompting wintry apparel, it seemed all I could smell was lignite, the dirty brown coal that powered East Germany.

Across the way stood a newsstand called Zeitungen aus der Welt (“newspapers from around the world”), a valid assertion insofar as one might choose to define the planet as either brotherly communist countries (their publications were displayed) versus off-limits capitalist ones (neither Time nor Newsweek was in sight), although obscure communist party journals from otherwise untouchable countries could be purchased with one’s hard earned Ostmarks.

Understandably the streetscape was devoid of the exuberant advertising clutter that was standard issue in western cities. However, workmanlike East German neon made an immediate impression on me.

It was the neon that always made East Berlin look different from any other Communist capital. With all those ads shining through the night sky across the Wall from the forbidden West, the Communist government had no choice but to fight back in kind. And so they did, mounting massive signs atop one building after another, advertising machine parts from Bulgaria and summer vacations on the Soviet railroad — Washington Post, 1990

I went back into the station to look for my departure platform. There was a kiosk serving sausages and bottled beer (Schultheiss, I think), and they went down the hatch just fine.

The train made several stops, including Dresden, and we sat for a good while at the border with Czechoslovakia, a fraternal ally of the GDR’s, but apparently this fact alone was no reason to reduce the pestiferous paperwork. It was around three in the afternoon when our train pulled into Prague’s Hlavni Nadazi (central station).

As instructed, I found a pay phone, and using the spare change George had given me back home, dialed the number, and spoke Czech words from his script: Tohle je Roger a já jsem na stanici: “This is Roger and I’m at the main station.”

Soon a car sidled over, and a friendly older man whisked me away.

For the next month Czechoslovakia would be home base, courtesy of my Czech émigré pal Jiří (George) Hrabčák’s fantastic family. Of course George remained back home in Indiana, unable to return to his country of birth without arrest, incarceration or worse. However, George’s aunt and uncle in Prague, and his mother and stepfather in Ostrava (then the Pittsburgh of Czechoslovakia), evidently had nothing to fear from hosting me.

It was merely another matter for the bureaucrats. My visa stipulated a certain number of days in the country, for which I was obliged to exchange a daily sum of West German Deutschmarks into the equivalent in Czechoslovak Koruna (crowns), which equaled $16 or so per day American.

Pockets bulging with crowns, I proceeded to a local police station, first in Prague and later in Ostrava, to register my exact whereabouts. With the exception of Yugoslavia, then existing outside the USSR’s orbit, tourism was a Catch-22 for Warsaw Pact nations. They coveted the hard currency we brought, hence the mandatory exchange, but felt constrained to exert at least some measure of surveillance.

Considering the geopolitically stunted climate and my own crippling shyness, the police registration procedure might have been daunting, except that George’s jovial Uncle Vlasta fully orchestrated the task. The morning following my arrival, he guided me to the nearest outpost of the constabulary and saw to the navigation of the process, by turns grave and jocular.

This came as no surprise, because I already knew that Uncle V. was a proud member of the Communist Party, a middle tier regional administrator charged with maintaining the ideological bona fides at a high-rise satellite housing district located just outside Prague. He was the quintessential example of a country boy made good who had adroitly played the hand he was dealt, rising through the ranks to enjoy a solid, respectable career and a stolid, unpretentious life.

Softball in the Prague ‘burbs.

During that seemingly placid summer of ’89, there was little reason to believe the domestic scene would change any time soon. It was entirely unimaginable that a non-violent “Velvet Revolution” freeing Czechoslovakia from its Warsaw Pact orbit – and abruptly rendering Uncle V. prematurely unemployed – would occur at all, much less a mere six months hence.

It did, although that’s another story.

Uncle V. and his family spent their workaday weeks residing in a comfortable, albeit unadorned apartment located in a comparatively upscale, 1960’s-era suburb in Prague. However, their pride and joy was an A-frame weekend house (“rekreační dům” in Czech; the Russians would say “dacha”) in the bucolic Bohemian countryside near Benešov, south of Prague, with electricity, cold running water and a toilet, and without a telephone or television.

Any excuse to exit the capital city for a few days of peace in these groves and meadows, once celebrated musically by the iconic composers Smetana and Dvořák, was seized with excitement and vigor, and while my hosts had jobs and an approaching wedding to coordinate (their eldest daughter’s, later in June), an outing to the weekend house was added to the agenda.

There’d be time for tending the garden, cleaning and making minor repairs, and the family’s beloved powder blue Škoda was loaded down with supplies, but first Uncle V. thought it necessary to provide his visitor with a day-long, whirlwind tour of Southern Bohemia.

Uncle V. enjoyed driving, so off we went, visiting historic cities (Český Krumlov, České Budějovice), sprawling castles (Hluboká) and even a hydroelectric dam that he had helped to construct in the 1960s as a youthful Community party hopeful.

There were mugs of locally brewed beer (Budvar, Samson and Eggenberg) platters of roasted pork, sauerkraut and steamed dumplings, and a steadily encroaching exhaustion. We finally arrived at the weekend house after dark, and after a few minutes of housekeeping and light snacks, everyone fell fast asleep.

Český Krumlov, 1989.

Next morning after a light breakfast salami, cheese and yeasty rolls I embarked on an orientation stroll in the nearby woods, returning a couple hours later to find green peppers and onions cooking in a heavy iron skillet with big, fat pork sausages, alongside a salad bowl filled with shredded cabbage, onions and homemade pickles.

There was a football-sized crusty loaf waiting, and plenty of butter. A dirt-smudged and grinning Uncle V. held up two oversized brown earthenware pitchers and motioned for me to follow him. We exited the front gate and walked along the rutted road, our ultimate purpose lost to me owing to our language differences.

After a quarter-mile or so, we came to a battered, 1930s-era building clad in chipped stucco, residing in the shade of old, leafy hardwoods. It stood next to the terminus of a single rail line, one that seemed to exist solely for use by the many holiday weekenders in the vicinity.

It became clear that the structure tripled as railway ticket office, grocery store, and pub. Although generally teetotal, Uncle V. had been dutifully forewarned by his nephew that Roger was an ardent beer lover, and accordingly, throughout my stay, he enthusiastically volunteered to introduce me to various classic establishments for sampling the many brands of golden, hoppy pilsner-style lager for which the Czechs remain justly famous.

Soon after my arrival, Uncle V. taught me a critical phrase in his native language: České pivo je lepší než americké pivo, meaning “Czech beer is better than American beer.” Before entering a tavern, he would drill me on the pronunciation, then introduce this gangly visiting foreigner to tavern staff and nearby regulars.

I’d smile on cue and utter the words aloud as best I could remember — and the free beers would begin materializing in front of me. Uncle Vlasta would shrug, beam with evident satisfaction and drink his juice or fizzy water, and while I wasn’t sure whether it was the novelty of a westerner’s presence or his “the-fix-is-always-in” ruling party credentials that caused such a reaction, I opted to emulate the elegant Vltava River and drink happily with the flow.

Consequently, spying the tap inside the rural railway station pub, it made perfect sense to have a creamy draft Ferdinand and quench my thirst after the morning walk, but as an inexperienced American accustomed to cans and bottles, I still couldn’t fathom why we’d lugged the pitchers along.

But my host chatted with the barman, who began filling them with cool beer for the walk back.

Growlers, the old-fashioned way.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Eighteen: In Ostrava, the beer of the people at the factory gates.

Communist Czechoslovakia failed to outlive its final five-year plan, alas.